The California Drought: A Problem of Consciousness?

September 2015

“All problems in the world are ultimately problems of consciousness.” This is a principle I believe in. It’s the main reason why I’ve focused my adult life on spiritual growth and the development of the spiritual communities in which I’ve lived for the past 20 years, rather than engaging in political activism and such. The principle also guides the work I’m presently doing as Chairman of the Board to rebuild the Ananda College of Living Wisdom, an institution dedicated to “higher education for higher consciousness.” As you can see on the College’s home page, if we accept that every problem is a problem of consciousness, then solutions are to be found in higher consciousness, which is what the College is all about.

Of course, as much as I personally accept the statement above as, to quote the character of Mr. Spock, “an axiom,” I must expect that others—especially potential donors whom I hope will be inspired to fund the College!—will see it as little more than a claim. As such, I must be prepared to defend that claim.

With many world problems, especially social issues like distribution of wealth, crime, unemployment, and countless political conflicts, the defense is relatively easy. The desire to commit robbery, for instance, is rooted in the consciousness of seeking happiness through the acquisition of money, along with the unwillingness to engage in productive work toward that end. Selfishness, which is clearly at the root of many ills, is clearly a matter of consciousness.

Other problems, however, are not at all obvious, and appear on the surface to make the claim untenable. Take, for example, the present drought in California, where am living. How can four years of dismal rainfall possibly be a problem of consciousness? We’re talking about planetary weather patterns here, after all, not interactions between people!

If one is inclined toward metaphysics, it’s tempting to simply say that mass consciousness or mass karma is responsible for large-scale problems like extreme weather, warfare, natural catastrophes, economic depressions, and the like. Great spiritual masters have indeed testified to the reality of such influences. Paramhansa Yogananda, for example, the widely-known master of the 20th century and author of Autobiography of a Yogi, spoke about such disturbances during World War II. Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters), relates one such instance in his own autobiography, The New Path:

On another occasion Master was talking to us about the power of true faith. “One evening I had just returned to Mt. Washington when a sudden, violent wind struck the main building. It was an effect of the evil karma of the war. People little realize how greatly the very elements are affected by mass consciousness. I told one of the ladies living here to remove a shoe and strike the front porch with it three times, repeating certain words. She did as I said. On the third blow, the wind stopped instantly. In the newspaper the next day there was an item about the violent wind that had started in Los Angeles, then, minutes later, abated.”

Let’s set aside this explanation, though, because without having a scientific means of proving such assertions they essentially require a leap of faith. Instead, let’s explore whether there are influences of consciousness that are more immediately observable.

For starters, many instances of extreme weather including the California drought are attributable to global climate change, and the most widely-accepted factor in climate change is rising carbon emissions from human activity. That activity is clearly driven by consciousness, namely the desire for economic growth at the expense of the environment and the associated rise in energy consumption, much of which is generated from carbon-rich fuels. Various changes in consciousness—both individual and collective—would thus have a measurable impact: tempering the desire for self-aggrandizement or economic growth, emphasizing renewable energy sources, marshaling the political will for social innovations like effective mass transit that would offset consumption of fossil fuels, and so on.

But now let’s say for the sake of argument that climate change is not, in fact, influenced by human activity at all, because there is plenty of historical and geological evidence that regions like California have experienced many periods of prolonged drought well before human being mattered in the equation. Can we then still talk about the present drought as a problem of consciousness?

Yes, we can, because we define “drought conditions” not in terms of their natural occurrence, but in terms of their impact on human beings. To put it simply, we pay little or no attention to events like droughts, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and so forth when they don’t affect human life (and especially when they don’t affect economic activity). What is it that makes any such event a so-called ”natural” catastrophe? It has nothing to do with the event itself, because these things happen all the time. No, they are defined as a “catastrophe” because human beings happened to be in the way. In other words, all catastrophes are human catastrophes

This begs the questions: why are human beings standing in the way of naturally-occurring events that we know can and do occur? People fully expect that Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and even Portland will someday be affected by massive earthquakes. But the short-term economic opportunities are so great that people are willing risk exposing themselves to the long-term potential for such events, and also trust that their effects can somehow be managed. Taking such risks is a matter of consciousness, and thus mitigating those risks, which could greatly minimize the national and/or global impact, are also matters of consciousness.

For example, imagine having social systems that are set up to not just provide emergency aid (as we already do), but could easily accommodate mass migrations in the case of “disasters.” If such safeguards were in place, then we might simply be saying, “Well, if California runs out of water it’s no problem to move 20 million people along with their jobs, homes, and everything else to many other parts of the country.” With sufficient “political will,” as it’s called, we could make this happen within the United States and even globally. Thus responding to crises of Nature is, in the end, a matter of consciousness.

Here it’s fitting to offer a specific example, that of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the massive flooding and widespread damage (that is, human impact) it caused in New Orleans, Louisiana. In its immediate wake, this Category 4 storm was waved about with great emotion an example of the threat that climate changed posed to humanity, and why we must act now and act decisively to address fossil fuel emissions (and punish those goddamn greedy oil companies in the process). But when you looked at the facts of Katrina’s impact, the biggest problems in New Orleans had little to do with the hurricane itself. It was rather the fact that many of the city’s levees, ostensibly designed to protect lives and property from flooding even with massive storms, were aging and badly maintained, especially those levees that served low-income areas. In other words, those levees failed because of human neglect, not because of Hurricane Katrina. The so-called “catastrophe” in New Orleans was thus a matter of social justice, which was, again, a matter of consciousness.

(Footnote here: in 2006 at the annual Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, CA, social activist Marjorie Carter made this exact point, and I personally led the applause in the crowd of over 3000 attendees. It remains the first and only time I have been moved to initiate such a response.)

Speaking more generally, the real concerns about climate change have little to do with the changes themselves. They are all about the impact on humanity. The specter of rising ocean levels threaten billions of people that live along coastlines, and could trigger mass migrations with their associated political challenges and the potential for widespread warfare. Changing weather patterns like droughts can easily affect food production, leading to similar results. But handling such circumstances are matters of consciousness, such as whether we will truly care for one another when circumstances demand it.

In short, because our fundamental concern about problems that arise from natural events—regardless of the ultimate causes—are concerns about impact on people, they are therefore problems of consciousness, not problems of an impersonal agent like the weather.

To put it even more simply, the very act of classifying a natural event—or anything else, for that matter—as a problem in the first place is an act of consciousness. Problems are problems because we choose, from some level of consciousness, to make them such. From a higher level of consciousness, we can just as easily classify those things as opportunities. In doing so we open ourselves to an abundance of solutions.

Returning now specifically to the California drought, what makes a drought is technically about the availability of water supplies to human populations, which is measured by the mountain snowpack (which supplies water through the usually dry summer months) and the level of various reservoirs. Those levels are clearly affected by rainfall and snowfall, but the very fact that “drought” is defined in terms of water supply for human consumption (and who has what rights to that water) clearly makes it a problem of consciousness. People happen to be in the way of the effect of a drought because the very numbers of humans that rely on the Californian water supply is rooted in consciousness, namely the desire to expand metropolitan regions like Los Angeles, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, San Diego, and Sacramento, not to mention many smaller communities. Because it’s generally accepted that economic growth is A Good Thing, it’s highly unlikely that a candidate would be elected to any office of meaningful influence by presenting a pessimistic view of water supplies and encouraging restraint on growth. The constituency simply doesn’t want to hear that kind of message, so they make a different choice.

This is consciousness in action, plain and simple, specifically the lower consciousness of self-interest taking precedence over the higher consciousness of working harmoniously with planetary events that seem to be, at least with our present understanding, out of our control.

What would it look like, then, to work harmoniously with an event like a severe drought? What are some of the ways we could look at it as an opportunity instead of a problem? Here are just a few:

  • Usage: what drives water consumption? Agriculture is the biggest one, which is driven by the people’s desire for water-intensive animal-based foods (beef, pork, milk, etc.), along with water-intensive plant foods like almonds. Desires are plainly matters of consciousness. There is also the desire for lawns, ornamental gardens, and so forth, which drive usage, not to mention simple desires like keeping one’s car bright and shiny by washing it every week. In addition, the simple act of replacing water-inefficient appliances and toilets would make a big impact, but in this case we often hit a wall of inertia because it’s easier (and cheaper) to just keep things as they are. These are choices of consciousness, as is the simple choice to spend 15-30 seconds less in the shower.
  • Water-saving inventions: in our household, we already have efficient appliances and try to minimize water usage. We also try to follow the principle that all the water we use should do some form of useful work. In practical terms, this primarily means capturing water in buckets or bottles that usually just goes down the drain while waiting for it to get warm for taking a shower or doing dishes. This is an inefficient and manual process that works, but it’s not difficult to imagine inexpensive systems that could automate such recycling. Choosing to invest in such work is a matter of consciousness.
  • Infrastructure: our nation have certainly proven its collective will to transport large quantities of oil from a small number of sources, refine it into gasoline, and distribute that gasoline all over the country according to the needs of the population. According to government data, the distribution of gasoline in the United States in 2014 was over 1 gallon per person per day. Clearly, there are no technical barriers to doing the same with water, which would also benefit by having many more sources to work from and would be much easier to work with given that it’s not a hazardous substance. Thus when the people of New England got buried in snow during the winter of 2014-2015 and posted a humorous sign that read, “Dear California: we found your lost water,” a distribution system would make it possible to get that water back to California.

And like I said earlier, I also believe we’re entirely capable of creating flexible social structures that would be resilient to the effect of large-scale events. Impossible? Let’s take the idea of relocating 20 million people out of California and break down the numbers. 20 million people distributed across 49 states and 3085 counties means an average of 132 people per county, whose average population is 100,000. In other words, the actual problem here is how communities across the country could absorb an additional 1.3% population (with jobs and homes), which I believe is well within the capabilities of consciousness. Undertaking such an opportunity task could also be intellectually and morally stimulating, emotionally enjoyable, spiritually liberating, and even economically beneficial.

And who knows? Making that effort could create the very metaphysical “vibrations” that soothe Mother Nature’s wrath, demonstrating that through higher consciousness we do, in fact, have control.